Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Club Rides and Finding the Right One for You

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With the weather getting nicer and the days growing longer (well, at least in some parts of the world),   it is around this time of the year that many cycling clubs and bicycle shops begin their seasonal programmes of group rides. Held once or perhaps even multiple times a week, these organised rides can offer opportunities to meet and ride with other local cyclists. Depending on the type of rides these are, they can also introduce us to new routes, different ways of cycling, perhaps even help us improve our fitness and bike handling skills.

For some cyclists, entering the world of organised rides is synonymous with cycling itself. No sooner do they acquire a bicycle than they join their local cycling club, re-learning how to actually ride said bicycle (seeing as they hadn't been on one since high school) on the fly, in the course of the first group ride they show up to.

Others are inherently reluctant to approach any type of organised cycling activity. In some cases this might be because they are beginners, uncertain their skills are up to par. But there are also experienced cyclists who are simply so accustomed to riding on their own that over time they come to feel altogether separate from the shared "cycling culture" they're certain all the other cyclists on these rides share, like some in-group secret language.

Prior to my first foray into club rides I was somewhere in between these categories, but much closer to the second. Despite communicating with many cyclists around the world through my bicycle blog, in person I was really a rather feral cyclist - riding weird bikes dressed in weird clothing, with no sense of my speed or skill level or suitability for riding in proximity to others. So that when a cycling club in Boston finally coaxed me into their fold, it was with the delicacy one would handle a timid, and possibly rabid, forest animal.

RSC Club JerseyNonetheless, eventually I did take a leap of faith and start joining group rides. And though I'm still a feral cyclists at heart, over time I grew quite comfortable in a group ride setting. I also became aware that there are many, many different kinds of organised rides out there to choose from. From racing-oriented training rides that assume possession of a fast, modern roadbike, to deliberately slow-paced social rides on upright bicycles with baskets and half the participants toting toddlers on their rear racks, to everything in between, if you want to connect with like-minded cyclists in your area, chances are that you can. It is only a matter of finding the right group ride for you.

That said, with the exception of the more obvious extremes illustrated above, the character of the group ride being advertised by local clubs, bike shops, or other entities, may not always be clear - leaving cyclists who have never been on organised rides before unsure of whether it is suitable for them. This is particularly the case when the ride organisers attempt to use inclusive language (i.e. "social pace," or "suitable for cyclists of all abilities"), inadvertently alienating first-time participants when reality does not match what those phrases lead them to expect.

As I often get questions about this aspect of club rides, I thought I'd offer some food for thought. There is information you can look for in club ride descriptions that will help you better understand what you're in for. Or if it's not made available, contact the organisers and ask them outright.

Roe Valley 25 Mile Time TrialType of Ride
It is usually pretty clear from a ride description wether what's being advertised is a road ride, mountain bike ride, vintage 3-speed ride, cargo bike ride, et cetera. But within the vast category of road cycling (which is what I will be focusing on here), there is quite a bit of nuance that might be left unspoken - most likely because the organisers assume it is assumed!

In the most basic sense, there is a distinction between training rides and social rides. A ride described as a "training ride" will be structured and speed/skills-oriented, almost certainly a paceline ride, where cyclists will be expected to ride wheel-to-wheel in a rotating linear formation. A "social ride," on the other hand, will be less rigidly conducted (although not necessarily slower!), may be routed through more scenic areas, and may include more stops, even a coffee or food break. If you aren't sure from the clues provided in the description, there is no harm in asking the organisers what type of ride it is. If you're not sure whether your bicycle is suitable, they can usually also advise you on that point.

Terrain
Speaking of the latter, one thing you may want to clarify - only if it matters to you, of course - is whether the ride in question is entirely paved or includes stretches of dirt/ gravel. With unpaved rides and mixed terrain roadbikes becoming increasingly popular over the past couple of years, it has become common in some regions to include unpaved stretches in group rides that are described as "road rides," without necessarily mentioning this fact in the ride description. Typically the organisers of such rides will be riding fat tires, so to them it will make no odds. But if you show on up a 23mm tire roadbike which you don't feel comfortable riding through a rough forest trail, you may be in for a surprise.

Another important aspect is the elevation profile - i.e. hilliness. Many online group ride descriptions will post the ride's actual route, which will provide useful information on hills. Of course this information is only useful assuming you know how to read and interpret it. If not, you can try to pre-ride the route and see how difficult you find it.

Ride Studio Cafe, Sunday RideSpeed/ Ability Level
But the main thing to look for when gauging whether a group ride is for you, is information pertaining to speed. Usually, though not always, the ride description will state what average speed the riders are expected to be able to maintain. If no numbers are provided, what might be listed instead is ability level (i.e. beginners/intermediate/advanced, beginners/fun/fast, etc.). Typically, this breaks down as follows: A group described as beginners will typically average 12-13mph. A group described as intermediate will typically average 14-17mph. A group described as advanced/fast will average 18mph+.

As an aside here, in order for this information to be meaningful, it is important to actually know your own average speed. And note that average speed does not mean the number you see on your cycling computer when you're going at a good clip down a flat road; you need to actually calculate what your average is over a fairly challenging route. When considering the stated speed of the group ride, it is also important to factor in the length and hilliness of the route. Whatever you think your average speed is, can you average that on a route comparable in length and elevation profile to what the club ride will be doing?

In my experience, cyclists who are not used to riding in the company of others tend to overestimate their average speeds, sometimes by a lot. For instance, recently I rode with a cyclist who confidently told me their average speed was 17mph, when in reality they could barely average 12mph. Not that anything is wrong with averaging 12mph; it's just that if you're going to be joining a club ride, it's helpful if you know your true speed and not your wishful thinking speed!

Style of Conduct
When I see the phrase "social ride," the image that comes to mind is that of a friendly group of cyclists, casually chatting, enjoying the scenery and the camaraderie. In reality though, even group rides that are described as "social" differ enormously in whether they are committed to ensuring that the group stays together. On some rides, the culture is that faster riders must control their speed to keep slower riders company, so that everyone literally rides in one great sociable clump. On other rides, cyclists of different abilities may spread out a bit, but every so often will regroup to make sure no one is lost on on their own for too long. And then, on other rides still, it's every cyclist out for themselves, to the extent that it's not unusual for a slower rider to spend the entire "group ride" pedaling on their own, "dropped" by the other riders 10 yards after the start! If you want to make sure you won't be riding by your lonesome, look for "no drop" references in the ride description, or ask the organisers about what style of conduct to expect from the ride. And, importantly: Unless the ride has a strict no-drop policy or you know the area well, be sure you have a copy of the route, so that you can get back on your own if abandoned!

VCC Northern Ireland RideThere are many other aspects of a group or club ride that can be important to a cyclist. Some like to know whether men/women will be present, not feeling comfortable in joining a ride where their gender is not represented (see this earlier post on women-only rides). Others might have questions about the types of bikes others will be riding, or the attire they will be wearing. Be aware that for insurance reasons, helmets are typically required on organised rides that are run by any kind of club, bike shop, or other formal organisation. However, I have also been on rides where this requirement was waved - so, if you're staunchly anti-helmet yet want to join a group ride it doesn't hurt to ask.

"When in doubt, ask!" is a good rule of thumb here in general. And don't be shy: More likely than not, the organisers will be glad to hear from you. And if their ride doesn't suit your tastes or ability, chances are they can recommend a different one in your area that does. How do you know if there are any in your area at all? Aside from googling "cycling +club +MyArea," start by visiting a couple of local bike shops. The staff there should be in the know.

As cycling continues to grow in popularity, there are more options on the "club scene" than ever. And while club rides are not for everyone, you'll never know if they are for you unless you give one a try. Even the feral cyclists among us might be surprised to discover ourselves enjoying a civilised sociable ramble - perhaps even a paceline ride!

40 comments:

  1. This is a good description of information to learn when considering joining a ride. One other point that may vary considerably with location, age, and temperament of riders, is the legality/consideration of the riding style and activities that may occur during rest stops. Do riders jump red lights, filter through traffic, enter "Park closed at dusk" areas after dark? Do riders drink alcohol or otherwise imbibe during the ride?

    Another place to check for local rides is facebook or other social media. Many rides are organized solely online.

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  2. Social rides are generally much slower than training rides. Otherwise, great article.

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    1. Not in my experience. There are clubs that host social rides where the advanced/fast group will be doing 20mph+ and there are clubs that do beginners training (paceline) rides at 12mph, if that. Usually both training and social rides will be separated into speed/ability groups, so that you can do either type of ride at the speed you're comfortable with.

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    2. I got my ass handed to me on a "No Drop Social" ride in Florida this spring. I rode with 2 different clubs that had 14-17mph Social Rides on their sites, the first one was closer to 12mph(but it was really windy that day) and the other never dropped BELOW 17mph. The first was lots of fun but not very challenging and the second one was sort of brutal since it was 90degrees and I'd already done 35 when I got to the jump(I also had a big-ass seat bag with a metric crappe-tonne of clothes and sketchbook dangling off the back). We then did 40 miles at 17plus and if I wouldn't have hidden behind a tandem I'm not sure I would have had enough left to do the 15 to get back to where I was staying without a bloodbag and some methamphetamine. It was a good day but not till after it was over.

      Both those rides had almost identical descriptions but they also had contact people I never bothered to get in touch with. I bet if I had asked a question or two I would have known what I was getting myself into. I also think that if I had sat up and dropped out of line they would have throttled back to keep from throwing me off the back of their "No Drop Social".

      They were super friendly and I'll try to hook up again when I go there but I'll be ready to scramble next time.

      Spindizzy

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  3. Another detail to look for -- and to ask for if it's missing -- is whether it's a "no drop" ride. You need to know beforehand whether the group will wait for you if you lag behind, or if you will be expected (without anyone saying so) to continue on or make your own way home if you should 'fall off the back'.

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    1. see under "style of conduct" : )
      (I know, post is way too long!)

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    2. Wow, I swear that section was not there when I first read the post!?! (Or I'm going crazy.)

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    3. I sometimes change or add things to posts after publishing, but I swear not this time - it was there all along!

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  4. None of this matters to me, it's all irrelevant somewhat.

    What matters is there a aero-barred knuckleheads in sleeveless singlets, knuckleheads who can't keep a line, don't pay attention to hazards, and generally behave as if the world is their and only their personal playground w/o responsibility for group interaction with other members of, you know, the public.

    Nine out of 10 doctors recommend avoiding group rides including these characteristics. The tenth is just an orthopedic surgeon looking to drum up business.

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    1. Aero-bars on a group ride, that is the vector for all sorts of Dumb-assery.

      We all need to be kind and loving to each other and cherish the "Special" that everyone has to bring to the party but don't show up with your Clip-ons and expect any Cake.(Wow, that came out all, like, philosophical and shit. I just made that up like I was some kinda' Soul Cowboy or something)

      Am I on FIRE?

      Ricky Bobby

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    2. The facebook group I ride with occasionally has a clear non-aerobar-policy. Makes sense to me.

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  5. For women in your old stomping ground of greater Boston, The local Rapha ambassador is leading no-drop women's training rides leading up to the Women's 100 (km) later this summer. Our first 21 mile training ride was this past Sunday. We had two groups, a 12-14 mph group and a faster group. Both groups had leaders and sweeps and the groups stayed together. There are more training rides coming up. So ladies in the Boston area, if you want to give group riding a chance, look into this event and the training rides. https://www.facebook.com/events/1578264995792836/ or http://ridestudiocafe.com/studio-community/2015-ride-calendar/

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  6. This feels like a dumb question: How do you learn how to ride a paceline? I've looked at some local clipboard rides no feel confident I could keep up with the medium group, but I haven't joined in yet because I lack some skills like riding in a paceline, drafting, etc.

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    1. My apologies for the typos. Let's blame gremlins in the keyboard. That should be "club rides" not "clipboard rides." Also, I meant to say that "I do feel confident that I could keep up..."

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    2. Ah those clipboard rides! No worries, as I was writing the post it kept trying to change "paceline" into "parcel."

      If you join a beginner's group, they will teach you how to do it. Usually the first part of every single beginners-level paceline ride will be spent on teaching the technique (or going over it, for those who've already been to a beginners ride or two).

      For reference, here's a write-up of my first experience. And second.

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  7. I must be of the 'feral' cyclist fraternity - though we don't actually fraternise - each to their own but I couldn't imagine anything worse than riding in a group - whether I take off through the bush trails or buzz around town, it's just me and my bike.

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    1. Yes. Every once in a while I think about doing some kind of group ride but then I think of all the things I do that I know would irritate other people- stopping to take photos, pet dogs, talk to people who live on the back roads I ride on. I guess I'm just stuck being a loner. :-)

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  8. It also helps if you know the ride leaders. I used to ride with the local club, and always rode in the slower group which advertised an average speed of 10-12 mph with a distance of around 15 miles. It got to the point whenever one of two people were the leader I didn't bother to show up. I knew the ride would be closer to 15 mph and they would change the course on the fly to add another 10 to 12 miles.

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  9. Preach it Steve!

    There's a special place in my heart for ride leaders who change everything to suit their mood on any given day, It's a place where I nurse my hatred and sense of injury, a place where I plot revenge and retribution.

    But the guy whose spokes I'm most eager to shove my pump into, is the guy who commandeers the ride by sheer willingness to be an A-HOLE and undermine the ride leader to change the pace, the course, and the length of a ride to whatever he thinks makes him look like a Puckish Sprite that the Chicks are totally gonna' dig. It's always a guy who is just fit enough to run the weakest person on the ride into the ground and somehow feels validated when he gets to do it. It's invariably a guy who gets ridden into the ground by the Men and Women on the ride he wishes he was still welcome on. I absolutely HATE when that guy shows up.

    I have trouble being kind to that guy.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Ah Testosterone Poisoning. This phenomena is strictly dealt with on rides I lead. I give a warning first, and then issue an outright ban. But here's the thing the TP-afflicted male fails to understand. The female of the species is not impressed when you ride off the front and drop the group. The female of the species is not going to snuggle up to you and sleep with you because you do this. Want to impress the chicks? Ride WITH us. Talk to us. OMG, have a conversation with us. Don't tell us what we are doing wrong, or how to ride faster. Have conversations about life, and cool places to travel and nice places to eat. Offer help when obviously necessary. Accept help too.

      One the the reasons, the ladies rides end up so popular with the gals, is lack of testosterone poisoning. This doesn't mean that women don't occasionally suffer from it, and display symptoms, but most of the ladies rides, with the exception on the Cat 1 paceline group, tend to be much friendlier, welcoming, nurturing rides.

      F.P.

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    2. I'm so glad I get to spend a little time riding with bright, interesting Women every week, I don't really have much contact with many Women who aren't My Wife or Daughters and the Club Rides are a safe place where everyone knows each other and the boundaries are pretty well marked and easy to understand. I've been riding with some of these Women off and on for 25 years and consider them important people in my life but I never cross paths with them in any other environment.

      If you want female friends it's a chance not to be missed, you just have to be careful not to seem creepy...

      Spindizzy

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  10. As another feral rider, one thing I love about randonnées is the moment (usually before the second controle) when I finally give up and drop off the back. Out in the country, early in the morning of an all-day (or longer) ride, nothing to think about but following the route and getting my card signed; what could be better?

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  11. If we do know our average speed, any guidance on how we would average in a paceline? I track in Strava, and the fastest I've ever averaged was 16.6 MPH over 13 miles, with a nice tailwind. On moderately long rides I average anywhere from 12-15 MPH depending on the terrain and wind. The only time I've drafted significantly I averaged 14.8 MPH over 47 miles. There were just two of us for most of it, but we did draft a group of three racer types for five miles or so. I was on a heavy steel "hybrid" from the '90s with 1.9" hybrid tires.

    I ride about 300 miles a month all year.

    Would I be doomed if I showed up for a 14-17 MPH group ride?

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    1. It's hard to say, as there are many factors to consider. I once averaged 20mph on a 13 mile ride, but the key word here is once. I would never dream of joining a 20mph club ride based on this incident! My alone speed over hilly terrain typically averages 13-14mph these days, and when I join club rides I go with the intermediate group.

      Once you're comfortable riding in a paceline, you can expect to average a bit higher than your alone-speed, because of the advantage drafting gives you. However if you are just starting out, I'd say pick a ride with the speed that matches your alone speed, so that the pace is comfortable enough for you to learn the technique.

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    2. Ok, thanks for the response.

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  12. I think the keys here are asking questions and simply trying out a ride or two. Be wary of online ride descriptions generally; thumbnail descriptions are vague enough and sometimes old enough that they don't reflect any route or cyclist changes (I'd venture to say that the Ride Studio Cafe is exceptional in its attention to/care for group ride detail!). It can be good to err on the slow side and try out a "slower" ride just to know what a 14mph average, depending on route, means physically.

    I think, regardless of type of ride (i.e.-social, training, A-C), one of the biggest challenges group riding presents is proximity. I began riding regularly by myself, as a "feral" cyclist. Well before I took part in pacelines or A rides, I didn't like the idea of group rides because of other cyclists being close to me. Initially, drafting felt a little reckless. This may be another reason why erring on the side of a slower pace would be a good idea for any newer-to-group-rides cyclists. It takes a little time to get used to going 14-16mph (let alone 25-30) a few feet behind and in front of someone else. And it can be challenging to get used to the variety of people who will ride in front of and behind you. Who's nervous on their brakes? Who lets cracks and holes go unsignalled? Who doesn't wash their kit?

    But you can get used to it and even love it. Group rides have changed riding for me and I'd say they're worth trying. When well done, they can connect all the best dots of cycling.
    Strixbike



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  13. I love the term "feral cyclist". definitely a feral cyclist here, but do the occasional "group" ride with a couple of friends. but I've also found the large events like local "Centuries" or "Fondos" fun. I even marshaled/first-aid-rider last weekend for an local small event and found it fun to ride with some of the newbies and encouraging them that they could make it over the hills and back.

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  14. Have you had success in finding a club in your new area or are you no longer interested in club rides?

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  15. SpinDizzy, If you ride off the front like Mr. Commandeer, the actual ride leader is under no obligation
    to send a domestique down the road to recover the soon to be lost sheep. Ride leaders have been
    known to make on the fly route changes to drop those who ride too far ahead of the group.

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    1. Hi Scottg, The people that ride off the front are a self regulating problem like you say(it's sort of a delight to watch them crest the next hill while we all turn off somewhere), it's the one that manages to wrest control from the leader and cajoles or shames the others into investing in his fantasy that make the suck. The guy I'm thinking of has gotten himself banned (officially or not) from so many rides that I'm not sure how he deals with the groans and rolled eyes when he shows up for the ones where they still let him ride. I'm afraid I've almost put him in the ditch myself but I'd have a difficult time pretending it was an accident. I just avoid him now.

      Spindizzy

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  16. Very interesting! It inspired me to pick up biking again like I used to!
    Greg

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  17. There is a large and well-organized bike club in my area that holds lots of regular group rides. Like many clubs, they rate the rides by grade (A, B, etc.), which equates to speed.

    The only problem is that the faster speeds also involve longer distances. I would love a reasonably fast ride that travels 15-20 miles. At about an hour and change, that would be perfect for my lifestyle as a workout I can fit in before or after work. But no, the B+ grade rides that I would probably fit into always do 30, 40, or 50. The only ones going my preferred distances are the C or D novices. So... I ride alone.

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  18. Gave up on club rides a long time ago. Of all the folks who bicycle it seems a very small percentage do the club thing. Mostly, the experience was competitive and took the joy out of the bigger idea.

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  19. I don't understand that competitive scene in a social bike club - who do they think they're impressing? I see this when out riding and a lone 'Lycra' approaches - they just have to whip past regardless of who or what may be ahead, just to prove they can overtake, really, it's not as if they'll ever be racing in the Tour de France.

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  20. It's all part of the problem that the word cycling, at least in English, has come to mean "road sport high speed male dominated cycling". In no other activity is this the case. If I joined a walking group, for example, I wouldn't expect it to be the type they do in the olympics. To the 90+ percent of people who never cycle, it's all a bit baffling.

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  21. When you join the army you wear the boots !!!!
    Just try and find out which group you are joining and do your best on and off the bike.
    Good article.

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  22. Wow, I really love the term 'feral' cyclist although I don't feel like I'm descended from domesticated individuals. Can we have a feral cyclist club with matching jerseys. Wait, that doesn't work at all.

    I started as a kid getting around, toured a lot, worked as a courier, road early mountain bikes, and now commute and ride in a cyclocross/gravel-ish style (I've only been in a couple of races). I usually cycle solo, but occasionally enjoy rides with 4 or 5 others. I've been on the Honey 100k's (half dirt/half paved) group rides from the Ride Studio Cafe that's in the picture at the top of the page. I go to a few benefit rides a year.

    The part I don't like about riding in a group is how a typical pack of 10 cyclists tend to behave in traffic. Even if there's a pre-ride talk about staying single-file and being extra courteous to drivers, there's always packs of 10-20 riders two-abreast that cause traffic to back up, and don't seem to care. Eventually on big charity rides, as the bikes spread out, I don't feel the need to yell "Car Back" every two minutes. Even on the Honey 100s, in groups of 10 that were in the woods half the time, there was too much of cars waiting at intersections while we all made a left turn like we owned the place. I think "Share the Road" needs to go both ways, and groups that annoy drivers don't do any of us any good and make all look bad (IMHO).

    For me, the D2R2 was really a great balance of group and solo riding because you could hang with an ad hoc group, switch groups, or go solo as you liked during the day. (There was also almost no car traffic, and the ride is spectacular.)

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  23. As a veteran of three or four thousand club training rides I have to say I barely recognize the universe portrayed in the blogpost and comments. And the rides I know are the same anywhere in the world and have been incredibly consistent for a half century. They are blissfully anarchic. Structure? All that's needed is a start location, start time, and an agreed route. Anyone styling himself Ride Captain would be laughed at, then disregarded.

    Some things have changed. It's now a popular sport and there are jerks. There will never be a shortage of jerks. I'm of the male gender and sometimes the testosterone levels are suffocating. Ladies who enter a world that is 95% male should adjust their expectations. I am not surprised that few come. To those who do show up, heartfelt gratitude. It is far worse when you are not present at all. Conversation? I miss the 1960s too. Never had a grad seminar that came close to those old Sunday morning colloquia on the bike. My professors all thought I was well-travelled and remarkably sophisticated. Never went anywhere then but Republic of Bike. Current conversation tends to gravitate to real estate and golf. This is a societal problem, not a bike problem.

    Skills? Few club riders have any at all. What they have is familiarity. They aren't surprised by what happens on the ride and can relax a bit instead of being startled and then chasing.

    Kindly stop obsessing about paceline rides you aren't doing. Myself I've never done a paceline ride. Pacelines just happen when they are useful but the normal formation of a group of riders is a pack. Also called a bunch or the peloton or just the group. Pacelines are always temporary. Even when local traffic in enforcement obliges single- file or double-file the circulation in the group is more normally pack circulation rather than clockwork rotation. And why do you even care about any of this if you're not consistently above 20mph? Drafting is no advantage until you're going fast. With a sufficiently sensitive instrument you might find a microbenefit at 17 or 18, that advantage is overwhelmed by the disadvantage of being nervous. And the advantage is overwhelmed at 20 and 21 and 22 if you are nervous.

    Which brings us to that wheel to wheel notion. It is not done that way. If it's a criterium and we are riding literally shoulder-to-shoulder or hip-to-hip there is a foot and a half between our wheels. If hip-to-hip is not close enough for you and your fellow cyclist the two of you need to go get a room. If we're talking about cyclists riding behind one another rather than side by side you can get closer than a foot and a half without violating the laws of physics but why would you? Whenever I get that close I am acutely aware that I'm doing something that affects everyone on the ride and I only do it until I have a good way out. With guys I really know, on roads I really know, in a small group where everyone knows that closeness is happening it might get tighter. On an open ride, a big group, never. Some of these formal paceline events are the blind leading the blind. Telling a novice to get six inches from the next wheel is just perverse. No wonder people are afraid of these rides.

    Watch video of team pursuit on the track. No one rides closer than these guys. At 40mph drafting matters. You can see World Champion teams where one guy or two guys will just be tired before the 4000 meters are over and they let the gap go to a foot and a half. What World Champions cannot fully maintain for four minutes on the track you do not need to do on your club ride.

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  24. Family rides are what they call slow rides here, which includes kids, so I'm still a lone cyclist. Not fast enough for organized rides and don't want to ride with kids. I love bicycles and riding them. I own a herd of them. I just don't fit into the organized structure because of my age and speed.

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